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On May 19, 1943, the Nazi authorities proclaimed Berlin to be “judenfrei,” free of Jews. Like much of the regime’s propaganda, this declaration was knowingly false. Only one month earlier, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, had written in his diary: “The Jewish question in Berlin has not found its final solution yet. There still remain a considerable number of Jews by law, Jews in privileged mixed marriages and even Jews in simple mixed marriages, here in the city.” According to Gestapo records, as late as Feb. 28, 1945, there were still 6,284 full and half Jews in Berlin. Among these survivors were the staff and patients of Berlin’s Jewish Hospital, one of two German Jewish institutions that operated continuously and openly throughout the years of the Third Reich and the Holocaust. (The other was Berlin’s Weissensee Jewish cemetery.) To be sure, the hospital was used by German authorities as a staging ground for the deportation of Jews to the death camps in Poland. Nonetheless, the hospital’s doctors, nurses and administrators were able to keep a minuscule number of Jews alive. The surrealistic story of the institution known as the hospital of the Jewish community of Berlin and its enigmatic director, Dr. Walter Lustig, is the subject of the superb Refuge in Hell: How Berlin’s Jewish Hospital Outlasted the Nazis, by Daniel B. Silver (Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston and New York, 2003). Silver, a former general counsel to the National Security Agency and the CIA, has written a gripping account of the hospital and its staff from the onset of the Nazi regime through the liberation of Berlin in April 1945. In addition, the book includes an insightful explanation of the complex German racial laws that provided legal cover for the Holocaust and enabled some German Jews to survive. Silver recognizes the moral ambiguity inherent in any collaboration with the enemy. In order to be able to save some Jews, Lustig and his staff had to send others to almost certain death. Ordered to select 100 Jews for deportation by an SS officer in 1942, Lustig at first refused. The SS man proceeded to pick one blond girl out of the assembled group for no apparent reason other than looking “too Aryan.” Some hospital employees were doomed because they were disabled or crippled. One victim was accused of not wearing his Star of David in the street, another of having illegally used a streetcar. After the SS man “had pulled a handful of victims from the crowd in this fashion, he turned to Lustig. ‘That’s how it’s done,’ Günther said. ‘Can you do the rest?’ This time Lustig complied.” And when 18 of those slated for deportation went into hiding, the Germans summarily shot eight of the remaining leaders of the Berlin Jewish community and replaced the missing Jews with 18 others. Lustig enjoyed a macabre relationship with the Nazi officials that enabled him on occasion to extricate some Jews from the deportation lists, but as Silver observes, “[e]ach transport had to have the requisite number of Jews to fill the train. Thus saving one person almost always meant sacrificing another.” Still, the hospital’s doctors frequently risked their own lives by writing medical evaluations that patients were too ill to be deported. Lay full blame where it is due Refuge in Hell captures the helplessness of the Holocaust’s victims. “There were the Gestapo’s repeated demands that Dr. Lustig reduce the staff by designating quotas of employees for deportation.” Adolf Eichmann himself conducted selections at the hospital. “Yet, despite these assaults against the hospital population, when the war ended some eight hundred people had survived . . . .In the race against death, [they] were the winners. On the other side of the balance were the losers, the thousands�the number is not known with any degree of precision�who passed through the hospital as patients on their way to a terrible fate or who were taken from the hospital’s staff to be deported.” One of the strengths of the book is Silver’s insistence that the Germans were the criminals, the murderers, and that even collaborating Jews like Lustig were themselves victims. Silver sets forth the facts, raises all the requisite moral questions, but in the end refrains from passing judgment. He is right. In 1954, a court in Tel Aviv, Israel, convicted Hersz Barenblatt, the head of the Jewish police in the ghetto of my father’s hometown of Bedzin, Poland, of having collaborated with the Nazis. (Israel’s Supreme Court subsequently overturned the conviction.) The case found two brothers, both survivors of the ghetto, on opposite sides. One charged that Barenblatt had sent Jewish children to their death. The other said that Barenblatt had saved him, his wife and his child. My father refused to testify. He knew that both brothers were telling the truth, and I remember him explaining to a group of Israeli judges and lawyers that “no one who was not in the ghettos and camps has the right to judge.” Silver reaches the same conclusion about Lustig. “[F]rom the comfortable perspective of those who were not there and did not have to make the choices,” he writes, “Lustig would have been damned whatever he did.” Menachem Z. Rosensaft, a partner in the New York office of McGuireWoods, is the president of Park Avenue Synagogue.

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